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She's 91, she's a millionaire and she's still teaching

For 53 years Rose Gilbert has stimulated and challenged her high school pupils, inspiring in them the same passion for literature and ideas that energises her

For 53 years Rose Gilbert has stimulated and challenged her high school pupils, inspiring in them the same passion for literature and ideas that energises her

Rose Gilbert didn't have much of a break this summer. While the several hundred pupils of Palisades Charter High School, southern California, were enjoying their three-month summer holiday, Mrs Gilbert spent each day planning lessons and thinking up new ways to approach her class texts. The day before her pupils' exam results came out, she rose at 6am to call the school secretary to see if they had been released, before she was even dressed.

At 91, after 53 years in high school education teaching literature, Mrs Gilbert is every bit as passionate about her job as the day she first walked into the classroom. She lives and breathes teaching, constantly thinking up new ways to stretch her pupils and inspire them to learn.

She happily recounts the books she read with her pupils in the past academic year. "We read Homer, Voltaire, Camus, Sartre, Faulkner, Miller - a very eclectic mix. We went through one book in about a week and a half," she remembers proudly.

Mrs Gilbert - affectionately termed "Mama G" by her pupils - started teaching at University Senior High School in Los Angeles in 1956, and transferred to Palisades High School in 1960. She never needed to teach in financial terms. Her husband, Sam Gilbert, a millionaire contractor and prominent supporter of the Universty of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) basketball team, left her his fortune when he died in 1987. In his lifetime, he built hundreds of homes and several multi-storey commercial offices in the San Fernando Valley, most of which Mrs Gilbert still owns today.

In the 1970s, the gates to their luxurious Pacific Palisades estate were always open - to UCLA athletes and Palisades pupils alike - who would gather on weekends for a "Jewish soul food buffet" and a dip in the 50ft swimming pool. At their home-away-from-home, the players would get counselling from the man they called "Papa G", while the pupils would receive tutoring from Mama G.

While Mr Gilbert, the self-made millionaire, spent most of his time at the office concentrating on business, Mrs Gilbert was completely devoted to her pupils at Palisades High. "We were workaholics," she remembers. "We both found our passion early in life."

Despite having lived the lavish southern California lifestyle for most of her life, Mrs Gilbert's first passion has always been to teach literature. Her pupils describe her as inspirational. "She's just like us - bubbly, energetic, spontaneous," says one.

According to her charges, the key ingredient to Mrs Gilbert's literature classes is that they address unusually controversial themes: racism, misogyny and the class divide are dealt with on a daily basis. In the eyes of her colleagues, it is this openness that makes her such a valuable addition to the school.

She proudly confides that her colleagues see her as a bit of a rebel. "I guess it's because I teach books in ways that are off the beaten path." Their continuing discussion of classic works of literature in combination with contemporary ideas is what allows pupils to really "peel back the onion", she says.

One former pupil remembers her classes in the late 1970s. "Knowing that this was one of the most challenging classes offered, bonding with fellow students became the norm," she remembers.

Mrs Gilbert teaches at a charter school - one of the many secondary schools in the United States that receive public money but have been freed from some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools. This freedom is given in exchange for accountability for producing good results. The system allows Mrs Gilbert to choose whichever books and poems she likes, while also being able to define the speed with which the class proceeds.

Does she find the Californian curriculum restrictive? "If I followed it I would, but I don't," she exclaims. "I am lucky to be part of a very advanced school - we enjoy the privilege of shaping our own curriculum."

Mrs Gilbert has seen huge changes in education during her career. Although she relishes the challenges of making literature accessible to students of all abilities, she admits she is frustrated at how grade-oriented her pupils are.

This was not the case when she started out, she claims. "They are so eager to get into good colleges, they have become unbelievably grade-conscious. When I started teaching, you didn't need a 4.0 average (equivalent to getting a certain number of As at A-level) to get into a good school."

This intense pressure to do well has been heightened by the state of the US economy, Mrs Gilbert believes, and has led some of her pupils to go to strange lengths to achieve their goals. Several years ago, one of her pupils counterfeited the documents needed to enter university. The University of Colorado got wind of the situation after spotting some inconsistent letterheads.

"Counterfeiting is just so easy now, what with all the tools available to kids," she says. "Children are under so much pressure these days to get into a good university, not only from their parents, but also from society in general."

The counterfeiter was subsequently expelled, and was therefore unable to complete his high school qualification.

She remembers another failed attempt to attain high grades. "Many years ago, one young man even tried to bribe me with a Chevy. I said to him: `How can you bribe me? Don't you know who my husband is?'" She laughs loudly.

Many of the pupils Mrs Gilbert has taught since she started at Palisades High in 1960 keep in touch and a large number of them have become "absolutely brilliant teachers". Twenty-two of her ex-pupils are teaching at the very same school where they first set foot in her classroom. A lot of them say this is due to her inspirational teaching methods.

"I'm so proud of the fact that students come back to me many years later telling me that I was the most important inspiration in their lives," she says.

"I inspire them to read long after they get out of my class. Sometimes they come back because they need a little recommendation, but sometimes they come just to see me."

Mrs Gilbert is very affectionate with her pupils. "I call `em `my little bubbies'. I give them gold stars when they are really smart - and write rude little notes on their papers when they are out of line!" But despite her sometimes informal approach to teaching, she does have very strong ideas about discipline in her classroom. "If pupils aren't motivated, I give them oral reports to do to get them involved. I believe a lot in oral participation," she says.

But without her sense of humour, she would not have survived the ups and downs that teaching brings with it. "One of my students once used the excuse that her cat peed on her paper. My response? `I read cat pee.'"

Naturally, Mrs Gilbert has experienced some lows during her five decades of teaching, the most profound of which involved the death of her daughter four years ago. However, she has decided to integrate her loss into her lessons to teach pupils about death and mourning. "When we read certain poems, they see how emotional I get," she says.

Mrs Gilbert also donates considerable amounts to UCLA in her daughter's name. "My grandchildren tell me I'm the eternal optimist - and that's the way to be," she advises. "Accept life with all its bumps. Life is full of bumps."

Throughout her own bumpy times, the classroom has remained a solid part of her life and her identity. She does not plan to retire - she feels that teaching is keeping her going. "I love it when I see the light in somebody's eyes when they've got something. Seeing people's attitudes change, seeing their confidence grow, seeing them being empowered and inspired - these are the essentials of teaching."

Mama G's words of wisdom

  • Reach for the moon
  • Always be authentic
  • Do not vacillate
  • Honesty is the best quality anyone can have
  • Respect yourself, your peers and everyone you meet.

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